The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) decision to choose Vijay Rupani, a non-Patidar leader, to replace Anandiben Patel as the Gujarat chief minister took many by surprise on Friday.
Rupani, a Jain, did not fit the bill as per conventional political wisdom. Jains are numerically insignificant, constituting barely 1 % of the state’s population. But Rupani was the first choice of BJP president Amit Shah, who has been camping in Ahmedabad for the past 48 hours.
In the backdrop of prolonged agitations by the Patels, or Patidars, demanding reservation, political observers expected the BJP to pass on the reins of the state to another Patidar.
Hardik Patel, leader of the Patel quota movement, is out on bail after spending months in jail on sedition charges. He can’t enter the state as per the court ruling. He is staying at Udaipur in neighbouring Rajasthan, planning his next move.
Nitin Patel’s name -- the senior leader was chosen as Rupani’s deputy on Friday -- as the possible replacement of Anandiben gained currency after the Gujarat high court quashed 10% reservation for the poor among upper castes on Thursday. Anandiben’s government had played the reservation gambit last April to placate Patels.
But Shah, party sources said, had his reasons to appoint Rupani. For one, Patidars have been loyal to the BJP and the party expects them to rally behind it by the time the state goes for assembly elections in December next year.
Besides, neither Anandiben nor Nitin Patel, the No 2 in her cabinet, succeeded in stopping the Patidar agitation, said Ahmedabad-based social scientist Achyut Yagnik.
“Patidars have been loyal to the BJP but the younger generation is not happy with the government. They are not interested in agriculture any more. They want employment in public or private sector. Patel votes will be divided (among different parties) in the next elections,” said Yagnik.
Patels, who constitute 18% of the state population, are divided into two major sub-castes: Kadvas and Levas.
Anandiben is a Leva and married to a Kadva. By appointing Nitin Patel, a Kadva, as the deputy chief minister, BJP leaders believe the party would be able to counter the influence of Hardik, also a Kadva.
Rupani, as the new chief minister, will be confronted with a daunting task. The most dominant community, Patidars, and the most oppressed, Dalits, are showing signs of disillusionment with the BJP.
The Dalits have been on a warpath against the state government since the flogging of four youth at Una in Rajkot district last June.
Rupani, the state BJP chief and the CM-designate, is a Shah confidante. He will have the organisational backing. But the lack of administrative experience could be a handicap.
Rupani, a first-term MLA from Rajkot (west), was the transport minister in Anandiben’s government. Incidentally, it was he who had announced the 10% quota for the economically backward class among upper castes at the state BJP headquarters.
Under the leadership of Shah, the BJP has been making experiments in choosing non-dominant community leaders as chief ministers -- a non-Jat in Haryana, a non-tribal in Jharkhand and a non-Maratha in Maharashtra.
It’s a non-Patel CM in Gujarat now. It might arguably be Shah’s biggest political gambit in his and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.